A republic, if you can keep it.
We in America pride ourselves on our democracy. No matter what else may happen, we (the generic body, "we", the aggregate of all of us taken in mortal sum) know as an article of faith that Our Democracy grants us a unique place in the world. We are more free, more just, more open ... these are the things we believe, as a nation, to be self-evident. We are exceptionalists, after all. We simultaneously believe that the foundations of our government, as rendered by the Constitution, are perfect and infallible, and that the government created by those infallibilities is corrupt and nearly always slouching toward oppression. This is why we can shoot fireworks into the air on the 4th of July, then complain bitterly about taxes the next morning.
It is a reasonable human condition: love and hate are not exclusive, and a certain daily shallowness is necessary for existence, lest every little detail of life throw us into despair. But when we wave the flag, we wave it like a brand-name product. When we say the Pledge of Allegiance, we say it as a hypocrite would say a prayer, loud and by rote, with no particular concern for the meaning of the words. We, in the aggregate, have faith in our democracy as we have faith in God: as abstract entity, as idealized figure working behind the scenes to move the gears of the world for good, irresistibly, beyond the power of mankind to deny or obstruct.
There is a difference, though, between democracy and Democracy™. The first is concept, the second, execution. The first is an ideal; the second, a brand. The first is a form of government, the second is a reality show projected upon the lands, the monuments, the buildings of American governance. The first has ideals, and heroes; the second has voices and celebrities. The first contains moral imperative and a sense of inalienable justice as human right; the second has a soundtrack.
Watching the first presidential debates, or pre-presidential debates, or pre-presidential pre-debates, or whatever they are called this year and in this incarnation, I was more struck by the scenery (which was ample and colorful) than the ideas (which were scarce and monochromatic). The format of the largest and latest was almost entirely indistinguishable from a game show. The set was lavish, and the players were encouraged to answer as tersely as possible. Thirty seconds per candidate should be more than enough to explain and solve any problem the nation might encounter, with time left over to select pizza preferences and which brand of soda might be more worthy of an impromptu endorsement.
The only variant from the usual game show format was, of course, that the contestants were not given points directly while at their podiums. The scores were instead tallied after the show, and by the usual set of political judges (if it were an ice skating competition, mind you, the obvious bias and corruption of those judges would cause a sporting scandal), who meted out their approval according to the usual categories. Style was most critical: who showed the proper emotion when, and in what proportions. Difficulty was worth a few points here and there: if someone answered a potentially awkward question without ending up on their face, they gained credit. Wardrobe got a mention or two. Merit of ideas was almost entirely absent—and thank goodness for that, since original thoughts were more endangered in that cavernous room than polar bears on shrinking Arctic ice. While democracy may value ideas, Democracy™ values presentation.
The colors of the flag, as brand, were everywhere. The live studio audience was an absolute necessity. The post-show judges often had more actual speaking time than the actual candidates.
How is this substantially different from Celebrity Apprentice? Or, for that matter, from Skating With Celebrities? My question to the television after the debate was not what have we become. My question, rather, was is this all we are?
The problem is that small-d democracy is boring. Actually hashing out what to do about unemployment, or whether to do anything about it at all, is not the sort of feel-good weekly programming that lends itself readily to spectacle. The nuances of policy are often arcane at best, and often require an underlying knowledge or expertise that precious few viewers have. Even discussing the ideas inherent in the Constitution, the glorious document itself, is not likely to be a hit program—but suppose you put a picture of the Constitution on a bus, and tour America in it? Now that might be something worth watching. That is Democracy™ in a nutshell.
Or a nut-bus, as the case may be.
So the dilemma is akin to the tragedy of the commons in electoral form. The least common denominator rules all: simple, unambiguous, memorable—these are all the traits of a winning public argument. Intellectualism is boring; sensationalism is more interesting. Policy discussions are not just dull, but damn difficult for practitioners and observers alike; personality clashes, though, now those are entertainment of the most primal variety, the kind even the ancient Greeks could invent plays around. One simply cannot compete with the other. One certainly cannot expect to have the same audience as the other. We like our political discussions like we like our music: loud, with a familiar beat and memorable riffs. Something we can sing along with is always best. And—no sarcasm implied, here—it simply has to be this way. A democracy will never have the noble ideal of a fully informed populace. It cannot happen. It is an absolute impossibility. An informed populace is always a crude approximation at best.
How, then, could we possibly slow the downward slide into political substanceless? If the least common denominator will invariably become the most common talking point, what substance can possibly survive that?
The first requirement is to note that substancelessness has always been with us. The America of the founding fathers was itself a place where political speech was often riddled with baldfaced lies and invented scandals; not a bit of this is truly new. There have always been a robust cadre of scoundrels and bastards unhindered by morality or decency in their quest for fame or power, and a cynic would say that these always represent the majority, in fact (a note to the reader: you are free to imagine me raising my hand here, voting with the cynics.) The press, as well, has hardly been a bastion of informed freedom itself, over these last centuries. Imagine the greatest asshole on television, on the radio or in print today (note to the reader: you are free to suppose that I was instantly able to think of ready examples, for all three) and that person has invariably been preceded by a similar soul saying similar things.
We have been the America of freedom, but also the accomplices of slavery. We have overseen shocking genocides, and we have historically been ardent practitioners of racism, and against a seemingly unending procession of targets. We have gone through periods of corruption, of class warfare, of imperialism, and of any other sin you can think of, to one extent or another. We are the products of history, after all, and not divine beings birthed from the fruit of philosophical infallibility, some dozens of decades ago.
I propose, however, that we have always been at our best when we have been most informed of our own national actions. The reverse can more easily be proven: the first thing any thug or despot will do upon finding himself finally in control of a nation is to control the information dispersed to the populace, and in specific, to reduce it drastically. The less information, the more readily the despot can bend the will of the people to accept, or at least tolerate, his decisions and his supposed reasoning. The more information available to the citizens, however, the more critically they can (and will) question the leader. Mistakes are made more evident; unkept promises are more demonstrably proven to be unkept; noble claims of the government can be checked and, if found false, the legitimacy of the government will be subtracted from by an equal measure.
The same is true of democracy as well: the ability of government to lie or commit crimes is checked directly by the access to information that would prove that lie or those crimes. From macro-government (federal, state) to micro-government (county, city) and even down to the level of each individual candidate for office, the same is true. A candidate proven to be a liar, or merely proven to have ideals different from those they have publicly expressed and/or of the population they are to represent, will be discredited. If such a discrediting can take place. If the population has, at bare minimum, the information necessary to determine whether a statement is true or is false.
Given that all of government is made up of individuals, then, it is the inquisition (a further note to the reader: I do not mean this word in its most pejorative sense, though I admit at feeling some pleasure at the hint of it) of each individual candidate that can best ensure informed representation in the democracy as a whole. A democracy of honest men will tend to behave honestly; a democracy led by the corrupt will itself easily bend toward corruption.
It is possible that Democracy™ could do such inquisitions and act as arbiter on behalf of citizens. Historically, it is even frequent, in fact. But—and at long last, this is the critical point—it is not an intrinsic property of Democracy™, the brand.
Democracy™, the brand, exists only as an expression of market desire. If titillation is desired, then titillation will be delivered. If scandal is desired, scandal will be sought out. If there is stomach for theater, but no stomach for exposition, then the political season will be one long, drawn-out howl, with no more backstory than a stray dog barking in the night. There is nothing that says the media must report the truth, or even investigate the truth. There is nothing that says, inherently, that a single scrap of our private Democracy™ be invested in discovery or substance. He-said, she-said reporting could fill up every spectrum of the airwaves, every last cranny of discourse, and there is nothing inherent that says such a thing is impossible. Vanishingly unlikely, perhaps—but not impossible.
It sounds positively morbid, and it is, if dwelt upon too long—but the truth is evident. Small-d democracy is an ideal state; Democracy™ is our particular private implementation, and one fraught with all the usual perils of human endeavor, including greed, and fraud, and simple laziness. We can never accomplish the former; we are always willing, self-imposed prisoners of the latter.
The ingredients, then, are these. A population that needs to be informed in order to truly be represented. A political class that has no inherent inclination to inform, and often substantial personal motive to mislead. And a media that can subsist, like hummingbirds, only from the most high-calorie meals. As misanthropy, it might be summed up as asking the flighty to judge the dishonest and inform the lazy. How could such a thing possibly work?
Thankfully, however, the mechanism need not be anything close to perfect in order to do a great amount of good. Democracy™ itself need not be perfect, and cannot be, but the nation will be healthier if the mechanism by which citizens are informed is healthier, and not necessarily even in direct proportion. We can both have our sleaze and our substance, our sugar and our vegetables, but the health of our nation—the closeness of our small-d democracy to that nebulous, impossible ideal state—will be measurably better with every bit of substance that makes it down our collective gullets. Exposing one charlatan is better than exposing none. Disproving one lie is a great deal better than letting all lies go unchallenged.
So how can we make things better? Forget perfect—all we need to do is better, from one day to the next. Forget better—at present, merely not worse might be a good start.
Foremost: the information that does exist must remain unfettered. This includes information both about the government and about private industry. No greater harm could come than to allow private individuals to control the ability of the wider masses to communicate freely, and communicate freely means, in this day and age, the internet. Privatized despotism might be worse even than the public kind, because privatized despotism need not even pretend at anything other than profit.
The harder task, though, is to make an attention to small-d democracy be itself recognized as a patriotic act. Not the patriotism of petty thugs, using the flag as bludgeon for their own personal or tribal interests, but true patriotism, a true love of country that includes the willingness to give of oneself to one's own nation. Even if give of oneself only means, damn it, to pay attention. If being informed is the only prime duty of a citizen within a democracy, then being informed is, in fact, the most patriotic act. Whether it be some minimal base of general knowledge about the issues of the nation or an obsessive expertise on a single chosen topic of national import, even if every citizen cannot have that knowledge, the ones who do should, at bare minimum, be lauded.
Peer pressure, then, would seem the most obvious tool for rewarding basic democratic competence. And the biggest source of political peer pressure, that single thing that, nationwide, can most readily inform or persuade the population as a whole, is Democracy™, the brand.
Pull back a single step. If it is the duty of Americans to know what their government is up to and how it is accomplishing it, then what of the members of the Democracy™ brand? The reporters, the pundits, the ex-politicians, the think tank heads, the casual opinion-givers and score-takers: surely their duty, their patriotic responsibility, is even greater. Titillation is a foundation of media, but it is not patriotic. Allowing a politician to mislead is the antithesis of patriotism. Allowing a political group to mislead, equally offensive. Allowing fellow media members to lie: unethical, perhaps. But more importantly, if those lies are about the substance of the issues that face the country, it is a sin against the nation. If our nation is to be a democracy, or even its more pragmatic cousin, the republic, than it is in fact the greatest sin, because to deny accurate knowledge to the population is the same as denying them a vote.
If we want our citizens to be patriots, then we must first demand patriotism of our press. Forget the politicians: they are an afterthought to the whole process. Informed citizens will elect informed leaders, just as ignorant citizens will elect stupid or shallow ones. Between maintaining informed citizens, maintaining an informed press, and demanding morality, ethics and patriotism of our leaders is by far the easiest of the three things to accomplish because it flows naturally from the other two—and only from the other two.
We are left with the following requirement: in order to maintain any healthy democracy, we must make patriotism an element of our Democracy™. True patriotism. The kind that values country over ideology, and fellow citizens over private gain, and truth over sensationalism, and even contemplating such a daunting task is enough to make you curl up into a ball, wanting to never speak or hear of politics again.
But it is possible. Daunting, yes, but possible.
There have been countless other times in our history in which even the most salacious news organizations knew the patriotic thing to do and knew they had the duty to do it. And there are countless responsible men and women in our discourse today, individuals who know that to enable true democracy in a nation, truth is paramount to all else. Most often we call them ethical, but patriotic is just as fitting a word. The task is to again enable and celebrate such patriotism within the narrow public confines of our current Democracy™. To expand those confines; to make a movement in which government falsehood is once again seen as an offense against the people, and in which media falsehood is worse.
We cannot prevent the presence of scoundrels and charlatans within our Democracy™, but we can, at the very least, shun them. It may not be what Democracy™ thrives on, it may not be the ratings gold that can currently be achieved by any simple liar with a simple, scandalous message, but it is possible.
(To be continued.)